Starfished: gender and space in fieldwork in India

In many meetings* with men during fieldwork, I was starfished. This is what I mean – the men I interviewed progressively expanded to fill up more and more of the common space. It started usually with the interviewee leaning back into his seat, which naturally results in the base and legs moving forward. At this juncture, some men would open their legs wide. In a few minutes, many folded their hands behind their head. Assuming this position, which I can only call The Starfish, these interviewees held forth on the questions I asked, and sometimes on the questions I didn’t ask, including my personal life.

As these starfishes unraveled, I found myself shrinking. I occupied as little space as I could. I moved back into my seat, fiddled with my dupatta, sometimes placed my notebook more prominently, possibly to create a boundary. I often was reminded of this beautiful spoken word work by Lily Myers. I waned as they waxed; my questioning, my curiosity waning in tandem.

Given that I’m now an eager academic (and also annoyed that my interviews were affected), I thought I should be a bit analytical about it. I asked myself when the Starfish came about in meetings and analysed its immediate effects on me. In the 6 interviews I reflected on, I found that in all, the starfish appeared when I began asking ‘difficult’ questions. Almost immediately as soon as a difficult question popped up, the starfishes tried to steer interviews to other topics, including, in some cases my marriage and why I don’t have children yet, and whether I was “a modern woman”.

I am sure many scholars can theorise the gender differences in occupying space more appropriately, and their effects on women’s self-perception. Perhaps there is literature from many domains that already does that. I reflect, briefly, therefore, only on the methodological implications of this. Findings from heavily interview-dependent fieldwork are intimately affected by the process by which information is gathered. I could not bring myself to complete a potentially useful interview where a fully unraveled starfish suggested that he could “complete the interview” at my home.

What can one do? I don’t think there’s any response to this or any universally applicable strategies. I found it helpful just to think about managing my personal space. I thought of firm answers to personal questions. I wore sarees to make me look older and bigger. To be sure, it is ridiculous to even have to do this. But in the delicate balance that is fieldwork, in seeking information which no one is obliged to give, I wondered if there is a painful trade-off – I make myself more information-worthy.

Huge thanks to @MumbaiCentral and @Anusual for the many (usually punctuated with much hilarity and perspective) discussions on the starfish.


* I must assert that this did not happen in all meetings. It was only in a few. During fieldwork, I have encountered several wonderful, kind and encouraging individuals to whom I only bear gratitude.

Address Illa: Migrants’ quest for identity

In Bangalore, there’s a cheery greeting in Kannada that’s often used when haven’t seen someone in a while – addresse illa!. It literally translates to “no address”, but is a reference to not having known where someone was for a while. As I began my doctoral fieldwork in the city, a lot of people who hadn’t seen me since I moved to London said this.

Little did I know when I started fieldwork that it would become a metaphor for the work I was doing. My quest to understand politics in rural-urban migrants’ communities revealed something startling – often entire communities were not on the voter lists. In many communities that I surveyed, the first question I was asked as a researcher was whether I was there to make voter ID cards for residents.

In the decade since the 2001 census, the urban population in India has grown faster than the rural population, though urban fertility rates have remained lower (pp.32). This growth has arguably come from internal migrants, both rural and urban (smaller towns) (NSSO 2007).

For a resident in the city, access to almost any service is predicated upon proving where you live (“address proof”), including, ironically, the Aadhar card. Many of the “good proofs”, as they are known in Bangalore, themselves require proof of address or a semblance of legality in residents (water bill, electricity bill). However, poor migrants in the city live under tenuous living arrangements, often with no security or documentation. Others, live in construction sites, individual apartments or in houses as domestic help. Even migrants who move with another relative face a similar challenge – if the bridgehead himself does not have proper documentation, it is unlikely he is able to pass it on to anyone else.

Like everything else, the voter ID card also requires proof of address. However, the election rules (in the explanatory appendix to form 6) do provide a neat little exception – in case of a homeless person, a Booth Level Officer can visit the place where the person sleeps to ascertain if that is the “address”. Most voters and local leaders I interviewed do not seem to be aware of this provision.

Moreover, migrant voters face two other crucial impediments to using this exception. First, the process of adding oneself on to a voting list requires the ability to read and comprehend documentation and legal provisions. Urban migrant communities do display lower levels of literacy. My own sample survey shows that in one community, 74% of surveyed residents stated they were illiterate. Second, they face impediments with the local language. The lower-level electoral machinery and bureaucracymay not be able to communicate in the multitude of languages that migrants into Bangalore speak.

Internal migrants are affected by the choices they make, given as they remain within the boundaries of the country, and often the state they are from. Moreover, unlike the wealthy do not have access to the social and economic capital to sidestep the state. Many flippantly suggest that they can go back home to vote. However, poor migrants face significant opportunity costs to exercising their vote. If they have to travel back home they are often expected to bear the cost of transport, in addition to lost wages. In the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court decision to grant NRI citizens a right to (e-) vote, it is worthwhile to consider the voting rights (or not) of another category of migrants.

Money Matters: Electoral success and elitism in Indian politics

Two weeks before the recent elections, as my friend and I shared coffee, she received a call. Her real estate broker was on the other end. He had a flat available for immediate purchase. The only condition was that the friend should be willing to pay cash, quickly. When my friend enquired about the sellers’ reasons for selling, she was told that that the seller money for “election expenses”.

Local leaders and party workers from across the political spectrum unfailingly attribute electoral success to money. At first blush, it would seem that electoral success is contingent entirely upon cash handouts to individual voters. Recent scholarly work, however, unpacks this relationship to highlight the complex mix of programmatic benefits and cash handouts that it takes to win an election. In a context where cash handouts do matter, albeit in varying degrees, exploring the relationship between money spent and electoral success can yield interesting insights.

However, electoral laws and normative concerns drive money underground, and we are forced to seek proxies for analysis. One such proxy for wealth distributed in elections is declared candidate assets. It must be emphasised that this does not act as proof of handouts. However, if the anecdote above anecdote is an indication, an analysis of declared candidate wealth can be useful in highlighting the money available for distribution. At the very least, such an analysis can shed light on the character of the candidates in the election in light of arguments of elitism in Indian politics.

In this note, using publicly available affidavit data, I break down declared candidate assets across key categories and explore potential implications as if the relationship between wealth and electoral success is true.


Average candidate assets differ across parties. The average INC candidate is wealthier than the average BJP candidate, though the wealthiest candidate seems to be the INC candidate that lost. Among the winners, the average INC candidate has 1.6 times the wealth of the average BJP winner.

  Won Runner Up Lost
INR mn      
BJP 94.56 (273) 136.71     (49) 41.10 (40)
INC 157.08     (43) 129.53 (214) 252.87 (31)

The data also suggest that candidates from the SC and ST communities have considerably less declared wealth on average than candidates in the general category.

Avg. declared assets N=
INR mn    
Gen 43.79 4865
SC 16.01 826
ST 24.11 368

The declared assets also vary by gender, and the average female candidate has declared 1.4 times the assets that the average male candidate declared. In contrast to the overall party trend vis-à-vis the INC, the average female BJP candidates is the wealthiest of the lot.

Avg. declared assets N=
INR mn    
F 53.36 343
M 37.96 5713
INR mn    
F 170.32 166.98
M 79.37 118.04

Overall Analysis

What do the findings imply? Many things – first, if candidate wealth does indeed enable handouts prior to elections, the evidence on wealth and caste category raises interesting research questions on the bases for political success in reserved constituencies – are there lesser instances of vote-buying there? Second, the claims of elitism in Indian politics arguably have a robust basis. Indeed, the INC’s candidates are wealthier in comparison to the BJP’s candidates, but the average candidate in this election has INR 3.8 crore of declared assets, placing the average candidate in the upper classes of society. The difference is really one of degree. Third, the evidence on gender seems to suggest that it is very wealthy women that contest elections. The average winning female candidate has declared assets of approximately INR 53 mn (INR 5.3 crore). This is likely to compound the problem of absence of voices, as poor women do not seem to be present in Parliament.

The base finding is perhaps the most disturbing. To be the average candidate, it seems that one has to be quite wealthy. This is quite insurmountable for a majority of the Indian populace, effectively excluding them from even contemplating participating in elections. Of course, assets seem to assure the wealthy entry, but do not provide liquidity. That’s why my friend was asked to pay in cash. – See more at:

The base finding is perhaps the most disturbing. To be the average candidate, it seems that one has to be quite wealthy. This is quite insurmountable for a majority of the Indian populace, effectively excluding them from even contemplating participating in elections. Of course, assets seem to assure the wealthy entry, but do not provide liquidity. That’s why my friend was asked to pay in cash.

All data from Many thanks!

Published on Political Indian at:

Deciphering the wave

In interpreting the 2014 verdict, it is crucial that debates on vote shares understand the electoral context. An assessment of national vote shares alone, as some analysts have done, suggest that the vote is fragmented. However, a deeper understanding shows quite the opposite – the context is more competitive than the last 4 elections, but the vote most resounding. The BJP has won the highest average vote share per constituency in the last 4 elections. The victory of the BJP is significant – it highlights the efficacy of an organised cadre delivering a unified message of leadership, and a consolidation of votes among Indian voters. Any responses to this verdict among the defeated parties need to account for all these factors.

A competitive election

Data suggests that the 2014 election is the most competitive of the last 4 elections (Table 1), making fragmentation likely. First, the number of parties contesting has steadily risen since 1999.  The number of parties with only 1 candidate has risen also, though their proportion has remained roughly similar. In 2014, these one-candidate parties cumulatively secured just about 0.6% of the overall vote, a drop since the 3 previous elections, notable in light of the percentage change. This presence of these candidates and parties is a valid explanation for fragmentation in vote share, as these parties have strengths in a few constituencies claim votes that may have otherwise gone to one of the top candidates. Sinister explanations by some party functionaries suggest that these parties are sometimes supported and funded by major parties, including the BJP itself, seeking to “cut” votes from another party in perhaps an unsportsmanlike, but nevertheless legitimate, strategy. My own work in Bangalore suggests that the leadership in these parties varies between local social workers, caste/community/religious leaders and street dadas (street leaders). These leaders secure votes, often in the thousands, from loyal supporters or caste members, fragmenting the vote share. This election, looked at in terms of the number of parties, appears to be more competitive than the 3 elections before, with a larger number of tiny parties seeking a share of the pie.

Table 1

2014 2009 2004 1999
No. of parties 485 372 222 170
   with 1 candidate 193 144 97 74
         vote share 0.60% 0.99% 1.10% 1.20%

Second, there were more candidates than ever, and consequently, more candidates per seat. Even if the (notional) new candidate secures a few thousand votes, this should lead to fragmentation in vote share (Table 2). Third, a variety of regional factors, including social movements and local politics, may operate to influence the competitiveness of the electoral contest. For instance, in many seats especially in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, the Aam Aadmi party was competitive despite some loss of face in Delhi. They secured average 2% of the total votes cast in India (20% on average in the above-mentioned states).

Table 2

2014 2009 2004 1999
No. of candidates 8251 8065 5435 4648
    Candidates/seat 15.20 14.85 10.01 8.56
Candidates party-wise
   BJP won seats 15.68 15.61 8.77 8.7
   INC won seats 14.27 14.51 10.33 8.1

The BJP performance in context

It is in this context that the results need to be examined and constituency-level averages are useful here. Interestingly, there were more candidates in the seats won by the BJP than the INC, an interesting phenomenon that occurs in all elections except 2004 (See Table 2). The BJP’s performance on average at the constituency level has been better than themselves in 1999 and the INC in ‘04 and ‘09. Winning BJP candidates have higher average vote share in their constituency than BJP or INC winning candidates, ever. This election also showed the greatest gap between them and the INC ever, more than even their own 1999 success.

When one compares the difference between the BJP and INC won seats, the story gets more interesting. Where the INC won, with BJP placing second, the difference between the INC and the BJP was 9.8 percentage points. When the reverse was true, i.e. in seats where the BJP won and INC was runner-up, the BJP candidate secured, on average, 19.3 percentage points more. In the somewhat bi-polar contests of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, in INC seats the difference was 7.6 percentage points, and 21.2 percentage points in BJP seats.

2014 2009 2004 1999
Winner Vote share , average %
   BJP 49.28 44.1 47.3 48.2
   INC 42.81 44.5 48.4 47.43

Stories of consolidation

The BJP’s remarkable performance has been despite the increased competition. It is possible that some growth in the BJP’s votes has been at the expense of the smaller parties, alongside the accretion of ‘new/young voters’. Assembly Constituency leaders and campaigners within the BJP in Bangalore targeted these groups (and their leadership) strategically, aided and advised by a ground-level cadre and booth level agents, many a time from the RSS and its affiliates. In Bangalore, the BJP’s efforts in this direction were also aided by the support of large numbers of white-collar campaigners for the BJP who were unfettered by the traditional caste and community boundaries in campaigning. This approach, buttressed by a combination of extensive outreach, local campaigning and the charisma (and marketing) of Narendra Modi, has yielded rich dividends. It has also possibly led to some erosion of the INC strength, which may have relied on fragmentation to push it ahead.

Equally, the explanation for the result may lie in the changing aspirations of the people, as the BJP likes to argue. This election has seen discursive emphasis on development, aspiration and jobs. However, this aspirational change alone is a limited explanation. The election is equally an indication that voters don’t just vote their identity, but also strategically assess who is likely to win, indicated in the decline of smaller parties. The language that (Bangalore) voters use in assessing politics is also indicative – they find proof in the ‘Gujarat model’ and speak of Modi’s executive experience.

It is quite likely that this combination of factors has enabled the accretion of voters for the BJP, . This resounding triumph must give pause to any party planning its response. Party campaigns, and scholars, can rue this result, and there is much to rue, or respond to this – through a well-crafted repertoire of strategies.

All data from Many thanks!

Many thanks to @puram_politics for advice and feedback.

Published on at

(c) Sarayu Natarajan, 2014




Door to door and service delivery: Possible bases of the BJPs success

No matter what one’s political affiliations are, last week’s results herald a new era in Indian politics.  Many early analyses emphasise the importance and role of the BJP’s presidential style campaign on the success of the BJP. My effort is to complicate this argument by exploring some of the social bases for the rise of the BJP. Over 4 weeks in urban Bangalore, I interviewed party workers and voters, and followed party campaigns.  I find that analyses that focus on leadership, and the so-called “NaMo wave”, may mask the support provided by the BJP’s focused grassroots campaign and concerted service delivery.

First, it appears that the BJP’s local workers have been involved in significant and focused door-to-door campaigning, beyond rallies/meetings. This kind of campiagning is true even in wards that have Congress councillors. In contrast, the INC does not appear to have such mobilisation. In Neelasandra (INC Ward), for instance, I found BJP-affiliated youth involved in campaigning and mobilisation. Shiva, the local BJP ‘volunteer’, allegedly collected a nominal amount in the name of ‘fundraising for the BJP’.  How much of this money actually reached the BJP is unclear, but it appears the process of collecting these contributions provided an opportunity to talk about the BJP and its agenda. In contrast, in these same areas, the Congress does not appear to have had similar efforts. One INC worker in charge of SC/ST mobilisation confirmed both the absence of the local MLA in any efforts to campaign or any efforts to send campaigners from the party side. Such door to door campaigning, he believed, act both as a show of strength and allows parties to “discuss issues”. Such campaigning, especially if led by professionals and educated individuals as was the case with the BJP, provides opportunities to spread information about party position. Backed with an intelligent and responsive party organisation, such efforts provide meaningful tactical direction to campaigning.

Second, beyond the immediate process of service provision before elections (as the Congress workers had done some wards), such as getting pension cards or ration cards made, BJP workers (and possibly in some cases, RSS workers) have been consistently involved in providing locals intermediation with the difficult-to-access government. Three such leaders/brokers/workers/agents, all male, disclosed that had been active in “social service” for several years now, including one who has been in such service fro a decade. Such characterisation of their work as social service (as opposed to party work) is unsurprising – such seeming neutrality allows flexibility in marketing the votes that have a hold over to the highest bidder. These individuals are all local residents and perform a variety of roles, in particular targeting their ministrations to the poor who struggle to access the state. It is possible that such services from the BJP cut across caste lines – for instance, several Vokkaliga voters spoke of these services. Such instances of cross-caste service provision have been noted by Ward Berenschot in his book Riot Politics (2012), and by Tariq Thachil in his work on tribals receiving services from the RSS in Chattisgarh (2013). Clearly, foresighted local leaders have the opportunity to build broad-based social coalitions which translate into electoral success, as voters increasingly lay emphasis on service delivery and responsiveness. At the very least, such service provision opens doors for party functionaries to access voters’ thought process.

In this clamourous  election campaign, it is quite likely that the BJP’s emphasis on Narendra Modi may have led some parties to focus on projecting their own leaders, possibly at the expense of more traditional methods of mobilisation. This may have been the smokescreen that led parties into eschewing grassroots mobilisation, allowing the BJP to quietly chip away at traditional bases of support.  Analyses of these historic elections need to account for the increasing importance of long-term provision of services and intermediation in party network formation and consolidation, particularly in urban areas.



Here I hope to catalogue my thoughts on various things, but primarily about Indian politics. I hope to mainly have book reviews and short notes. As I work on my fieldwork in Bangalore, India, I also hope to post some notes and findings (musings if you will!) as I go along.

I look forward to your thoughts, feedback and ideas.